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Fire Escapes : Before a Back-Yard Blaze Gets Cooking Be Sure It's Cool With the Authorities


The crackling warmth and light of a campfire seem to possess some special power: It brings out the storyteller and singer in almost everyone. It makes hot dogs--dangled precariously from the end of a wire hanger--taste better. It inspires decadence--chocolate bars, graham crackers and melted marshmallows combined into gooey sandwiches--that would not be tolerated elsewhere.

What if you could enjoy all those things without piling into the car and driving to a campsite in the woods or finding a fire ring at the beach?

Depending on the regulations where you live, it is possible you could gather around a camp-style fire in your own back yard.

Chris Gaffney of Costa Mesa recently built a fire pit in his back yard. It was not a difficult job, he said, and it has been a great addition.

"Our landlord came and cut down our trees, and we needed to find a way to take up the space that was left," said Gaffney, a locally based country singer. "We planted a small flower garden and still had plenty of room left. So we decided it would be nice to have a fire pit like the ones at the beach."

With permission of the landlord, Gaffney set out digging a hole just off the patio. He dug the pit, about three feet in diameter, in about an hour.

"I used the soil I took out to make steep angled walls and kept wetting it down. The soil is mostly clay and stays real hard after it's dried," he said.

A trip to a local building supply yard provided lava rock to edge the pit, and a donation from Gaffney's mother-in-law of her old wooden fence supplied the first batch of fuel.

"The total cost came to $25," he said. "We have a lot of people over, and everybody likes hanging around it, especially our friends' kids."


Policies on building outdoor fires vary from community to community; all require that appropriate safety precautions be taken.

Before proceeding, contact your local fire department to learn what restrictions apply in your area and to get a permit if required. Some communities don't allow permanent fire rings but do issue permits for one-time barbecue pits. Some issue same-day permits; some require notice. The county has very strict policies covering unincorporated areas.

In Costa Mesa, it's legal to build your own fire pit as long as some common sense requirements are met, according to Fire Marshal Tom Mcduff.

"We allow recreational fires as long as they are 25 feet away from structures or other combustibles and in a fire pit."

There should always be a bucket of water or a hose at the ready in case there are any problems, and the fire should be constantly attended, he said.

"You should only burn wood or charcoal. No trash--that would no longer be a recreational fire and you could be letting loose all sorts of toxins into the air," he said.

If you live in one of the unincorporated areas of the county, fire pits are taboo unless they are fueled by natural gas and have been built with the proper permits.

"We don't allow open fires anywhere except in state recreation areas," said Darren Johnson, hazard reduction inspector with the county.

The single exception is for a one-time barbecue pit. "Some special permits are required, and there are guidelines and restrictions," Johnson said.

For instance only wood can be used for fuel, and it cannot be stacked higher than two feet. The diameter is limited to four feet. It must also be covered with a screen spark arrester of at least 1/2-inch mesh. A 2 1/2 gallon bucket of water must be nearby, and trash is never allowed to be burned.

"There are also weather conditions involved. If it's a red flag day of heat and high winds then no permits will be issued," Johnson said.


In general, regulations governing back yard fires are based on the Uniform Fire Code, with communities making variations to take into account particulars of their area, such as high fire danger or high population density.

When the local fire station knows you're planning a barbecue pit, it avoids engines being called by neighbors to a fire that is in reality a roasting pig.

While a permit for a back-yard fire pit is not a common request, neither is it uncommon. Several fire departments said most requests are for one-time fires, often to roast a pig or lamb as part of a holiday or cultural celebration.

In Santa Ana, each back-yard fire requires a no-fee permit, according to fire prevention officer Jim Livingston. And, he said, "lots (of people) do it."

In Westminster, back-yard fires also require a permit, for which there is a $35 fee. The person applying for the permit must submit plans that will be evaluated to make sure the fire won't endanger people or property. The length of time for which the permit is good varies, but most people want it for a particular weekend rather than long-term, according to fire prevention officer Ron Roberts.

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